Snake Oil Salesman

“Snake oil salesman.”  That’s an expression I haven’t thought of in quite a while, and it’s been even longer since I heard it. The term dates from the 1800s, when traveling salesman and their “medicine shows” roamed around the country, selling elixirs and potions of all kinds, even some that supposedly included the oils from snakes.  Those wonderful concoctions were claimed to cure everything that ailed a person.  Some of the shows persisted during the Great Depression, up until the start of World War II.

Label from a bottle of gen-you-wine snake oil remedy

Back in the days of my childhood one of my favorite annual experiences was the arrival at our farm of the Ballards, good friends of my dad and mom. When Doc Ballard and his wife, Helen, showed up it was almost like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one!

A Gen-You-Wine Indian Chief

What a thrill it was to see Doc’s old truck turn onto the bridge from the hard road to our clay road and slowly chug up to the house. It was a big truck for that day and age; dual wheels in back and a large boxy body, painted on both sides with enough bright lettering to excite any one, and in depression days, any entertainment was exciting.

“Doctor Ballard’s Indian Medicine and Entertainment Company” the lettering said, clearly something out of the ordinary. For my sister and me it meant sitting around a small fire, carefully playing with the “genuine” Indian toys and dolls the Ballards brought us, and listening to Doc spin stories about when he grew up — stories about tepees, and buffalo hunts and killing bears with a bow and arrow.

One supposedly true anecdote I remember clearly was when Doc Ballard was driving his show truck — which had the doors removed — in downtown Indianapolis, dressed in full Indian Chief regalia with feather headdress and fringed leather britches, headed to one of his shows.  He suddenly realized he had passed the place where he should have turned, so he decided to make a U-turn around the cop who was directing traffic at the next intersection. As he was making his U-turn, the old truck chugging away, the policeman yelled, “Hey! You can’t do that!”

Doc confidently replied, “No problem, paleface. Chief think he’ll make it.”

Mom and Dad knew – and we eventually found out – that Doc grew up in Indianapolis and had a Masters Degree in psychology from the University of Indiana. Somehow,  when I found out, it didn’t bother me at all.  He was still my storytelling Indian hero.

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